… Volker’s tales are carefully spun, a weave of gossamer thread of the finest ilk. Her books take a while to write and she has an uncanny ability to transpose the reader into time and place.
In A Fractured Land, we are able to visualise the arid landscape, the sweat of hot nights is tangible, and we can smell the lingering scent of wisteria on dry, balmy days. Volker is adept at breathing life into the South African landscape, making it jump off the page to embed itself in the reader’s mind.
“Quite a lot of work goes into my books,” says Volker. “I have been working on my current novel for about three years. I’m quite fussy. I try hard to layer the characters, to make the dialogue work. I feel like each novel is taking longer – maybe I’ve become a harsher critic of my own work, or maybe I am learning the craft of writing more.”
The time that Volker invests in her writing is evident in her other books, Shadow Flicker (released in 2019) and The Pool Guy, a novella published in 2021. Attention to detail sets her work aside from other books in the genre, where some writers have managed to push out many books in a short time.
Volker’s writing stands out in its meticulous effort to cobble together a love story that is complex, exquisitely told and of a high calibre.
What also sets Volker apart is that both A Fractured Land and Shadow Flicker skillfully incorporate an attempt to pluck at the strings of environmental consciousness.
“I write about the environment because it’s an issue of concern to me. When writing the books, I thought about some of the social circles that I am in where these issues don’t even touch ground. I realised that one way of getting people to think about it is through fiction.
“Sometimes people are just so fatigued about bad news and watching it on TV. So I wanted to package it in a way that was palatable… in a way that raises awareness.”
Ambre Nicolson Hsu reviews BOILING A FROG SLOWLY by Cathy Park Kelly for Woman Zone Book Club
“If someone in your life is not sane, then expecting the best from them or working on yourself or breathing into the pain is a long road to misery. Sometimes you just need to walk away.”
These lines, drawn from the end of Cathy Park Kelly’s Boiling a Frog Slowly (Karavan, 2021), explain the central premise and plot of this compelling memoir. Don’t be fooled by their simplicity though, Park Kelly’s clarity is hard won.
In fact, what makes this book so riveting is the way in which Park Kelly describes just how complex and subtle the descent into an abusive relationship can be. What begins as an exhilarating new love unravels slowly into the terror and claustrophobia of mental and physical abuse.
While this book is about a difficult subject, it is not hard to read. Many memoirs of abusive relationships go heavy on the unremitting horror of the situation with the sad effect of numbing a reader. Instead, Park Kelly tells her story with warmth and wry humour. This has the effect of making her unflinching descriptions of the abuse and terror she experienced even more harrowing when you get to them.
What I like best about this book is the author’s quiet commitment to telling the truth, even when it is complicated, unpretty or ordinary. This is particularly apparent in her telling of how she extricated herself from the relationship. Whereas many such memoirs end with a flourish (the blinding once-off revelation, the dramatic flight, the packed suitcase), Park Kelly details instead the slow, hopeful, painful and painstaking journey towards recovering her agency and the confidence to leave the relationship behind. This rigour and integrity acts as a wonderful astringent against the often cloying “happy endings” that such books sometimes claim. Instead of ending with the first glimmer hope, Park Kelly looks beyond the easy ever after to paint a much more compelling portrait of a woman who, in the end, rescues herself.
Nancy Richards reviews A HIBISCUS COAST by Nick Mulgrew
In my opinion, Nick Mulgrew is the most extraordinary young man of words. Quick bio run down: In 2014, in his early twenties, he founded uHlanga, a magazine of poetry from KwaZulu-Natal – the now award-winning uHlanga Press publishes poets more widely. Personally, he’s had the support of the German Sylt Foundation, the Swedish Literature Exchange, amongst others, and was a Mandela-Rhodes scholar. His work, mainly short fiction and features, has won lots of awards and accolades, including a Thomas Pringle and Nadine Gordimer Award. He’s written four books, was born in South Africa in 1990, raised both in Durban and Orewa, New Zealand, is currently doing his PhD at Dundee University and is based in Edinburgh. This is not to over-brag on his behalf, just to expand on his background which again, in my opinion, throws light on why this, his fourth book and first novel is also completely extraordinary. And absolutely original.
The story starts in South Africa – the opening line, ‘The neighbours were murdered at Christmas.’ lays the cards on the table, and then, through the person of 19-year-old Mary, makes its way across oceans to New Zealand. It’s no coincidence that there is a Hibiscus Coast in both countries.
On the imprint page, it says ‘This book is a work of fiction. Any descriptions…of actual persons, places, events or organisations are fictitious.’ I’m sure this is quite true, but the persons, places, events and organisations here are so meticulously described as to ring peels of bells – both in what a reader may have experienced or imagined. Whilst I’ve never been to New Zealand, the images, and dialogues especially, appear to have been born from close and processed observation. And research. Mulgrew acknowledges, together with the South Coast Herald archives, the National Library of New Zealand, the Auckland City Library, Takupuna Library and UCT Library as some of his sources. Interestingly, something of a graphic artist, young Mary spends a bit of time in libraries too. He was also helped tremendously by ‘komiti members of Te Herenga Waka of Orewa’ – so those who know little of the indigenous culture of NZ are in for some lessons. Now I know what a ‘hangi’ is, and that it needs to get laid. In fact I think I learnt quite a bit about South African culture too – for better and worse.
But aside from the extraordinary insight that’s gone into this book, as well as lived experience and research, what I found to be so absolutely original is its construction. The text is ‘illustrated’ with what you might call ‘supporting documentation’ – affidavits, newsletters, newspaper cuttings, posters, flyers, even hand-written notes. It’s been conceived and laid out with such care, that it commands respect – as well as a place in the timeline of both countries. I’m sorry not to have given any details of the plot itself, but oty to discover. Finally, they say you can’t tell a book by its cover, but what you can tell from this one, is that it really IS absolutely original.
First published on the GBAS FB page.
Nancy Richards reviews CONJECTURES by James Leatt
If ever there were a time to be asking the big questions, it’s probably now. I mean – commercial Christmas, COVID, universal chaos, climate change crisis – you know. But let’s narrow it down and start at the top – Is there a God? And / or is it possible to be good without God, the ‘standover man’? Endless list really. But these and so very many more are the questions with which James Leatt has been living – for a very long time. In his 80s now, Leatt set out on the religious path as lay pastor for the Order of Christian Service aged just twenty. He recalls spending his twenty-first ‘preaching on a hot February day in a tent mission at a new housing estate in Retreat.’ His calling to the ministry was loud. But not impervious to question. ‘Doubt,’ he quotes a proverb, ‘is the beginning, not the end of wisdom.’
In this book, he charts for the reader his path over the decades of religion, faith, doubt and questions, all the while spilling out some contagiously quotable lines and thoughts from a lifetime of reading and thinking. He was captivated for instance by Durkheim’s view that ‘religion provides the glue that holds societies together.’ He quotes a Dutch Reformed Minister who said a mining disaster was ‘an act of a wrathful God calling a sinful nation to repentance.’ He talks about ‘theodicy’ (the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil) and of a ‘crisis of credibility in religion’ … and more.
Interestingly however, he has not been sitting Buddah-like under a tree mulling over all this enlightenment doing nothing, he has led an exhaustively busy life teaching Social Ethics at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, becoming Deputy VC and Vice Principal at the same institute, later becoming VC and Principal at the then University of Natal. He was a founder member of the Independent Mediation Service of SA and Deputy Chair of the Institute for Democracy in SA (IDASA) – amongst other roles. But I tell all this, not to knock you dead with his CV, but to indicate that the path he has trodden has also wound its way through some hectic, challenging and revealing times here in South Africa. That he has emerged as a mild-mannered, silver-headed man still questing and questioning when others of his era have taken up bowls, is inspirational. Especially thought-provoking are his chapters on ‘Looking east’ and ‘Living without gods’ – but it’s all interesting, and as I opened by saying, infinitely quotable. My favourite takeaway is the parable of dharma – which he writes, is like a raft that you build out of all the things that come your way. You use it to ford the river in front of you, then you leave it on the other side for someone else to use. Like a legacy. I’m sure James Leatt will leave many others, but this book is truly a nine-carat piece of legacy for thinking readers to use.
First published on the GBAS FB page.
Nancy Richards reviews BOILING A FROG SLOWLY by Cathy Park Kelly for Woman Zone Cape Town
Someone once explained to me the frog in increasingly hot water concept – that he won’t notice till he literally boils to death. I remember being horrified that such an idea could have been put to the test – poor frog, for heaven’s sake.Woman Zone Cape Town
More shocking though is the thought that such a concept could apply to a human being – but seems it can. Despite an increasingly hot water relationship, Cathy Park Kelly, hung on in for eight tortuous years with a man she calls here Karl. Her book, a vivid recall of the undermining, violent and over-heated treatment she tolerated, just made me want to weep for her. And lash out at the perp …
Penny Haw reviews THE POOL GUY by Melissa A. Volker
Read the entire review: @pennyhaw
Archie Swanson reviews CONJECTURES by James Leatt
There can be no doubt that Conjectures is a work of extraordinary breadth taking the reader on the author’s journey towards the resolution of deep personal questions of spirituality and faith. James Leatt’s life experience, first as a Methodist Minister and then an academic, serve as a backdrop to the conjectures he outlines.
Of course, a conjecture is a conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information and therein lies the challenge of the book. How does one pull all the philosophical threads of the ages together to discover a sort of spiritual Theory Of Everything. Leatt experienced a Damascus Road moment standing on the verandah of his alcoholic parents’ rented house in Kalk Bay as an eleven-year-old boy — a deep inner assurance that he had a right to be part of the universe. What followed was a journey in search of spiritual understanding which initially led to his conversion to Christianity followed by a life-long transcendence away from that safe harbour of the Doctrines of the Church towards a secular spirituality.
Enroute we are taken on a tour de force of the thinking of the great writers and philosophers of the ages: Pascal’s ‘The heart has reason that reason cannot know’. In Tennyson’s Ulysses — ‘I am part of all that I have met’. The third century BCE questions posed by Epicurus — ‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Is he able but not willing? Is he both able and willing? What then is the origin of evil?’ The particularity problem raised by Reinhold Niebuhr in relation to Jesus as the only way. Jung’s theory of the two-million-year-old self. Marx’s ‘The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness’. Freud’s religion as a projection of suppressed desires. In Speaking of God, William Horden’s ‘The language of religion is not scientific but rather describes the mystery of God. Nietzsche’s ‘… the death of God’. There are discussions of mindfulness and Eastern beliefs.
As Leatt puts it, “I have been a forager looking for ideas that throw light on my life and times”. He concludes that he can no longer accept Judaism, Christianity and Islam’s appropriation of the world’s religion. He is glad to be the beneficiary of the process of disenchantment whereby magical thought and practice are eliminated by science and technology.
His wrestle with the issues of faith, meaning and ethics finally leads him to the formulation of the tenets of his secular spirituality, yet somehow one is left with the impression that Leatt is still that hungry eleven-year-old boy looking to the Kalk Bay stars for answers.
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Archie Swanson’s poetry has been widely anthologised both in South Africa and overseas. He has published three collections of poetry: the stretching of my sky, the shores of years and, most recently, beyond a distant edge. He serves on the Board of the South African Literary Journal which publishes New Contrast. Instagram @poetarchie
Penny Haw reviews BOILING A FROG SLOWLY by Cathy Park Kelly
Click here to read the review: @pennyhaw